25 Years In LA Part 2: 'Shawshank,' 'Sleepwalkers,' and 'Sticks and Stones'
Yesterday, I wrote about my first year in Los Angeles, which was all just a matter of settling in. Remember, when I moved to LA, I knew a grand total of zero people who lived or worked here. I was not laden with contacts and strolling into a situation where everything was guaranteed to work out. Scott Swan and I took a huge chance when we packed up and moved out, and I am so horrified by how little money we had saved that I'm almost embarrassed to say the number. I was insanely naive when I arrived in town.
I am still haunted by a choice we made in those early days, when we answered an ad in one of the trades that was looking for writers willing to work on a "per sketch" basis. I forget how much the rate was… $100 or so, but definitely not more than that… but Scott and I talked it over and figured we'd be able to write a few sketches, earn the money, and then we'd never hear of the film again. After all, the guy who hired us was working out of the back of a real-estate office in East LA, he had no film experience, and he wasn't sure how he was going to fund the film.
So of course, "FART The Movie" is not only listed on my IMDb page now, but ours are two of the only names that appear on the DVD cover, at least on the edition that was given to me at my birthday a few years ago by Devin Faraci, who was delighted to hand me the disc. And I could protest and squawk, but I used that money on groceries, and I earned it by writing some very dumb fart jokes when I was 20.
Porn would have been more respectable in hindsight.
When Scott and I were still living in Tampa, we had discovered laserdisc and had fallen in love with it. There were so few places we could find titles to buy in Tampa that it was sort of a frustrating habit. When we moved to LA, we were able to find way more titles, with Tower Records on Ventura being an early favorite spot. It was right around the corner from the theater where we worked, and they had pretty solid prices, all things considered.
Laserdiscs were crazy expensive, though, and so we were always looking for better deals, which is what led Scott to one day check out a place called Dave's Video. As soon as he did, he applied to work there and told me I would want to do the same. He got the job, and about a month later, I left the theater I'd been working at and followed him over to Dave's. Run by Dave Lucas and Linda Lucas, it was a family-owned business that largely catered to the industry.
Dave's Video was enormously important to me for several reasons. First, it's where Scott and I met Keven Van Den Brink, who became our Third Amigo, and our roommate for several years in an apartment in North Hollywood. That was the first place in LA that I felt like I could actually call home and enjoy, following several other living situations that simply did not work. Second, Dave's Video was where I met the people who ended up changing my life for the better.
Dave was one of those guys with a gruff exterior who would eventually reveal himself as a sweetheart, but only if you earned your way past it. He was fiercely protective of his customers, and one of the things he insisted on was that no one use his store as a mere stepping stone to something else. He never wanted people to feel harassed while they were shopping, and for good reason. He had customers like Steven Spielberg, Danny DeVito, Ivan Reitman, Michael Jackson, Hugh Hefner, and people from every level of the studio system.
One thing that helped me enormously during those early days at Dave's was the weird way I internalized any information about movies. I may have forgotten calculus the day after I learned it, but anything about a movie would just got filed away for immediate recall, and in the days before the IMDb, there was real value in being the guy who could list someone's filmography. More often than not, when a customer had a film question, I would hear one of the other people working at the store say, "I'm not sure. Ask Drew."
Many of the people who became important in my life met me while I was working there, and the day I started at Dave's was the day my life in LA truly began.
6. The production of "Sleepwalkers"
One of the first people I really hit it off with while working at Dave's was Mick Garris, whose name I first recognized from his work as the story editor on "Amazing Stories." One of the things that made Mick so significant was that he never once treated me like I was "just" the guy at the video store. In every single conversation, Mick treated me like my opinion mattered and like he actually wanted to hear it. You'd be surprised how rare that is. There were plenty of people in the industry who were willing to talk at me, but to me? Far fewer, and it made someone stand out when they were genuine.
Mick was gearing up to direct "Sleepwalkers" from an original screenplay by Stephen King, and for whatever reason, he made the set completely open to Scott, Keven, and me. The first chunk of shooting we saw was on the Warner lot, and it was our first time having access to a backlot. They took over the old Waltons house and redressed it for a sequence involving dozens of cats showing up in the yard of the main characters. If you ever get the chance to go visit a set where they are trying to make dozens of cats do something together on cue, you should do that, because it is like watching someone try to juggle water.
It was when the film moved to the Sony lot to shoot all of its interiors that things got really amazing, though, because at the exact same time, "Hook" was shooting on the lot, and it was pretty much the center of the universe as far as the industry was concerned. Celebrities dropped by every day to tour the elaborate Piratetown set or to visit the based of the tree where the Lost Boys lived. It took over several different stages, and the doors to those stages were wide open more often than not.
Mick knew everyone in genre movies, thanks in part to his time as a genre journalist, so he had his own fair share of fascinating guests dropping by to visit him on the set. The one that was most interesting was Spielberg himself, who appeared to be finding excuses not to be on his own set a few stages away. There was one day where Mick was shooting an elaborate motion-controlled shot involving Brian Krause and his change from a weird cat-monster thing back into himself, and much of the morning was spent simply choreographing the move. At some point, Steven Spielberg slipped in among the rest of the crew standing there, waiting for Mick to finish.
When Mick saw him, they spent a few minutes catching up, and then Mick took him over to show him the camera and the motion-control rig. Spielberg asked a few questions of the cameraman, and then the guy stood up and moved, allowing Spielberg to take a seat on the rig.
At that point, the film's 1st AD turned to everyone else and loudly said, "Spielberg's playing with the toys. LUNCH!"
Even during post, Mick made the entire process open to us, and we took full advantage, visiting him while cutting the film, going to listen to the recording of the score, sitting in for the final sound mix. It went beyond kindness, and one of the things Mick made clear is that other filmmakers had done the same for him, and that it was vital to his own understanding of the process. Scott and I were so green, so young, and while we understood the mechanics of filmmaking, watching Mick gave us a chance to see the reality of working in LA up close.
My one real regret involved the wrap party for the film. Held at the bowling alley where they shot "The Big Lebowski" years later, it was an open bar affair, and it took place just after my own 21st birthday. While I'd certainly been shitfaced before, I'd never been able to legally tie one on. I was so high on the invitation to the wrap party that when I got to the venue, I cut loose in a major way. I remember parts of that night, and then I also remember stories people have told me about that night. At one point, we were bowling overhand into someone else's lane. At another point, I spent a half-hour professing my undying love to Madchen Amick while she sat next to her bemused fiance. It was a truly epic performance on my part, and I have no doubt that if anyone I met on that film had even remotely considered me for a potential job, that consideration ended well before I finally staggered out of that bowling alley, drunk and rowdy and so, so dumb.
7. "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption"
The guy on the other side of the counter had asked me several questions, and I'd helped him figure out the name of a film he was looking for, but I had no idea who he was until he handed over his credit card to pay for his discs.
I glanced at the name as I read the card. "Frank Darabont?"
"I really liked 'Woman In The Room.' Good film, man." I was referring to a short film that Frank had adapted from Stephen King's short story of the same name. As soon as I said the title, Frank lit up. Like anyone who makes art, he was pleased to have someone offer up a compliment, and we talked a little bit about the movie while I finished up his transaction.
Frank became one of those guys who we saw several times a week and who always was up for a conversation about new stuff, old stuff, our stuff, his stuff… he was an open book, and he was doing the exact sort of thing I hoped to be doing. He'd written a "Nightmare On Elm Street" film, he'd been part of the "Blob" remake, and at the moment we met, he was hard at work on "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles." When he would talk about the plans Lucas had for the show, it sounded really ambitious, and I still wonder what would have happened if he'd been able to turn the show into the interactive educational tool he originally envisioned.
There was another project Frank was working on, though, that he was obviously head over heels nuts about, and he told us that it was based on another of the King stories. Because of the way he handled "Woman In The Room," King had given him full control of one of the novellas from "Different Seasons," the anthology that also spawned Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me." That deal was incredibly important to Frank because it gave him the ability to say no to people. He wanted to direct the book as a feature, and he said that from the first time he read it, he had a clear picture in his head of what the movie should be.
Lots of people talk about their dream projects, of course, especially in LA. But Frank dug in and little by little worked on making it actually happen. Then one night, I was closing at the store and Frank came in, a smile on his face so wide it looked like he might swallow his ears. He had a script with him, bound in the hard black folders that he used for all his scripts. He was practically bouncing. He told me he had finished his draft of the script and he was excited by it. He asked if I wanted to read it, and I could hardly drive home fast enough.
Both Scott and Keven knew Frank as well and knew how hard he'd been working to crack this one, so when I got back to our apartment, we opened the script up and started passing the pages around, reading the entire thing in one long silent gulp. And when we finished, all of us mysteriously suddenly suffering from allergies, we were in complete agreement. Frank had just written himself into a brand-new career, and everything we'd written up to that point was just plain not good enough. It was one of the first times I read a script and felt humbled by the craft of it, and the next morning, we called Frank to rant and rave, each of us in turn, about how good it was. What we read was very much what you saw in the theater (or at home, more likely), with just a few little differences. It's amazing how clearly Frank saw the film and how clearly he understood the possible emotional punch of the material.
Watching how he turned that script into the finished film was a whole different education, but it was clear from the script itself that the power to change our lives was within our grasp, and the right piece of writing is all it would take.
8. A guided tour of being a tour guide for Universal
When I was ten years old, my family took our one and only trip to Hollywood, and the highlight of the visit for me was Universal Studios and the backlot tour. I still have vivid memories of things like the "Battlestar Galactica" detour, the "Airport '77" water show, and lifting the A-Team van one handed. It was a pretty formative trip for me, and yet for some reason, it never occurred to me to try to become a tour guide.
It was the summer of 1992 when I saw the ads for tour guide auditions, and for the first time, I considered it as a job. I tried out once and didn't make it to the interviews at all, and then tried out again, landing the job the second time. It was an intense process to get the gig, involving memorizing huge chunks of text in a very short period of time, and it was clear right away that most of the people in my training class were actors who saw this as a chance to be on a lot and "performing" to some extent. I ended up getting the job based on sheer wealth of knowledge. Part of the difficulty of that job comes when things get busy and traffic stacks up on the backlot. You find yourself having to stall, and when you're an exhaustive movie nerd like me, you can talk about pretty much any corner of that lot for hours at a time.
By far, this was the most debauched work environment I've ever personally experienced, and while the statute of limitations has expired now, I don't think I'll ever fully cop to everything that happened there. One of the things that was most exhilarating was sneaking onto soundstages where we weren't supposed to be. I sat in Fred Flintstone's car with my feet sticking out of the bottom. I rubbed the belly of the Stan Winston T-Rex in "Jurassic Park." I smoked a joint in Courthouse Square, right under the "Back To The Future" clock. We danced with the Blind Melon Bee Girl at the MTV Awards afterparty. And I made friends there. Good friends. The guy I lived with for about three or four years in Hollywood was someone I met two days into my employment when he saw my last name on my time card and decided he had to meet someone actually named "McWeeny."
One of my favorite moments came when I was stuck right at the end of the bungalows, about to head into New York Street, and things had slowed down to a complete stop. That's a terrible place to get stuck. I was doing my best when I noticed some sort of disruption going on near the back of the tram. I realized someone was walking along the side of the tram, and based on people standing up to take pictures, I figured it was someone famous.
Then I spotted him. John Landis.
One of the rules they teach you at Universal is that you're not allowed to say his name on the tour. Ever. Not at all. You are more than allowed to talk about "Animal House" or "Blues Brothers" if you want. You just can't mention that anyone directed them. There are some other particular littles dos and don'ts that they teach, like never pointing out the location of the Amblin' bungalow, but the Landis one is very personal. I knew the rule, and I was worried because there's always a chance they could put someone on your tram to check up on you.
But there he was, walking slowly along the side of the tram, smiling at me, almost daring me to say something. I looked over at my driver, who just shook his head, knowing full well what would happen if I identified the filmmaker.
"Ladies and gentlemen, you may have noticed a familiar face on my side of the tram, and no wonder. He's been a resident here on the lot for years now, and he's made some huge hit movies for the studio. So get those cameras out, everyone, and say hello to the one… the only…"
Landis was grinning by this point.
"… JOE DANTE!"
And as the tram pulled away, Landis gave me a double-barreled middle-finger salute, smile still firmly in place.
9. My time at the DGA
By far, the weirdest side route I took in my early days in LA occurred after I worked at Universal, when I started doing temp work at various studio offices. It was a solid gig, and it got me into some rooms I wouldn't have had any other access to at the time.
One day I got the call to go to Encino so I could work for a few weeks for the Assistant Director's Training Program, part of the DGA. I had no idea what any of that meant, but it sounded like an easy, cushy gig. What I didn't realize was that my few weeks would turn into six months, but that's exactly what happened.
January 17, 1994, I woke up to the most insane earthquake I've ever experienced, and I basically rode my loft bedroom right down into the rest of the apartment, freaked out and shaken silly. By the time I went back to the ADTP, the full-time administrative assistant had left and I had been promoted into her job. We also had to vacate the original location in Encino and had to move everything to Burbank to temporary housing. Companies that had entire office suites in that first building were suddenly forced to share one massive floor in a building right next to the Warner Bros. lot, and we were suddenly stumbling over each other in this fairly limited space.
One of the unexpected benefits came because we were in the same space as the MPAA, the CARA, and the American Humane Association's film offices. I got a close-up look at the people who rate the movies and the process behind it, and I also ended up with the single greatest library of screenplays, produced and unproduced, that I could have imagined.
You see, every single Hollywood project that goes through the studio system has to be supervised by the AHA so they can verify that the animal action in the film is handled safely. So every single film submits a screenplay to the AHA, and they create a file where they have their notes about the script and a copy of the script. In the year I was with the ADTP, my friends at the AHA told me I was more than welcome to read anything they had on file as long as I put it back. I read scripts for films that were still years away, and I read scripts for older films just to see what had changed.
There was one particular script I was desperate to read, and it didn't occur to me until months into the arrangement that I could check to see if they had it. Michael O'Donoghue and Mitch Glazer wrote the film together, it shot for a few weeks, and it was shut down by Paramount. The script was legendary, and I figured I finally had a chance to read it. Instead, in the folder, there was a single sheet of paper that read, "We in no way endorse the making of this motion picture. We find the content of the script entirely objectionable."
I laughed for a half-hour at the idea of what must have broken some poor AHA worker.
The entire time I was working at the ADTP, I was working on my own projects, using their computer to type things up, copying scripts after hours. I was, to be blunt, a horrible administrative assistant. By the time my boss, Elizabeth Stanley, figured out what a truly terrifying job I was doing, I had gotten a piece of news that was going to change my life, and I left in a big flurry of "You'll see! I'm off to be famous!" Years later, I ran into Elizabeth again in a totally different capacity, since she's the head honcho over at the outstanding "Trailers From Hell," and I was able to offer her a red-faced apology for being such a terrible employee. It's the one time I've honestly felt like I had no business taking someone's money, and she would have been well within her rights to still be pissed at me. She wasn't, and it was nice to finally get that off my back.
It wasn't my fault, though. My mind was on other things...
10. "Sticks and Stones"
One of the people I owe a huge debt to is Jerry Levine. You may know him from "Teen Wolf," where he played Stiles, Michael J. Fox's best friend. You may know him from his work as a TV director, where he's practically ubiquitous. When I met him, I was still at Dave's Video, and he walked in one night looking for help to prepare for an audition. He had a script with him, and on the first page, there were a list of films and actors and directors that the writer considered an influence. I helped him track down at least one disc that had to do with each of the entries on the list, and he left, excited about the audition.
While he didn't get the role as Nice Guy Eddie, he did bring the script, "Reservoir Dogs," back and gave it to me to read. We'd started talking about his work and about what Scott and I were doing, and he ended up reading the script I had moved out here to sell, "The President Must Die," and it had gotten his attention. He wanted to direct features, and he was starting to figure out how to make that happen. At the time, his wife was working her way up through the studio ranks and they were also enjoying their time as parents of a young son. Jerry was basically living the life I was hoping for, and I saw how hard he was working to make things happen for himself. He directed a one-act play called "Big Al," then found the financing to shoot it as a half-hour film for Showtime, and the entire time, we were bouncing ideas back and forth about how to polish the script we were now calling "Brothers In Arms."
One day, Jerry called us over to his house, and he pitched Scott and I on a new project. He was partnering with casting agent legend Risa Bramon Garcia to spearhead a one-act theatrical festival called "Act One," with the idea being that there would be three evenings, five plays each evening, and whatever did well with audiences and critics might also be developed in some other form for Showtime, who would help underwrite the festival. It was a huge opportunity.
Only… Scott and I had no interest in writing for the stage.
When I went to Florida State University, I went because of their theater program, and I managed to take the classes I wanted before being chased out. I love theater, and there's nothing quite like the charge of being in a small 99-seat house when something magical happens onstage, but my heart belonged to movies. I wanted to write genre movies. I wanted to write stuff that everyone could see. I still have populist tastes (see my "Jurassic World" review later tonight, for example) and I don't apologize for them.
But in LA at the time, race was a constant topic of conversation, and it was fascinating to watch the way people twitched when the topic came up. While I wasn't sure if we had anything that would work onstage, Scott seemed confident, and we promised Jerry we'd think about it. He kept us posted as they put the steering committee together and started reading submissions, and he kept telling us to submit something. Finally, it came down to the wire, and we had about 72 hours until the submission deadline.
We locked ourselves in the apartment, stocked up on whatever writing fuel we wanted, and then cranked out an angry, caustic bark of a play and turned it in, sure we'd just ended our friendship with Jerry in the process. Instead, we were informed that our play was the last one chosen, and the only one chosen by unanimous vote. Even better, Jerry decided to direct ours, making it one of the centerpieces of the entire festival.
We started rehearsals with one cast, and the casting process itself was exhaustive. That's one way that Risa Bramon Garcia elevated the entire enterprise. By that point, she was acclaimed for her work with Oliver Stone, and she was working nonstop on giant projects, training younger casting directors including Mary Vernieu, who is basically the single hardest-working person in show business today. We had our choice of people, and when we went into rehearsals with Jonathan Silverman attached as Alan Klein and Lou Mustillo as Salvatore Di Palma, we were confident we had a cast that was going to make something special happen.
I still hold the actual run of the Act One festival as the single most amazing creative experience I've ever had. The reviews were great. The audiences were solid the entire time. And we started meeting agents and actors and directors who liked our work. I got reviewed in Variety on my 24th birthday, and while it wasn't a long piece, they wrote:
The final offering, "Sticks and Stones," is the evening's set piece. Written by previously unproduced playwrights Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, the play revolves around a high-powered attorney (Jonathan Silverman) and a racist cop (Louis Mustillo) who is on trial for the hate-slaying of a black youth. (He insists it was in the line of duty.)
Director Jerry Levine and his fine cast plumb the emotional depths in the piece, which poses provocative questions about the nature of racism, the abuses of the press and the lethal power of the spoken word.
Whatever came next, I was confident that things had finally begun for us, and it was smooth sailing from that point on.
Man, was I naive.
See you back here tomorrow for "Showtime, Silverado, and the rise of Ain't It Cool."
And make sure you read part one, "Gene Hackman, Eazy-E, and Albert Brooks defending a film"